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Time To Heal: Rwanda Finally Closes Its Controversial Genocide Tribunals

After 10 years and about two million sentences, the tribunals overseeing genocide prosecutions have finally closed. Many Rwandans feel more relieved than reconciled.

Gacaca courts (Elisa Finocchiaro)
Gacaca courts (Elisa Finocchiaro)
Albert-Baudoin Twizeyimana

KIGALI - Nearly a million people were killed in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsi minorities and moderate Hutus. A decade ago community-based "Gacaca" tribunals were set up to oversee genocide prosecutions, with the hopes that it could achieve both justice and some measure of national reconciliation. With the closing of the last of these special genocide tribunals this month, the process has received notably mixed reviews.

Gacaca courts are a Rwandan tradition: an informal tribunal to address village or familial disputes. Gacaca (pronounced gatchatcha) means "soft grass," symbolic for a meeting place. These special courts have handed out some two million sentences over the past 10 years.

On June 18, the last Gacaca tribunals pertaining to the genocide were finally closed. "It was a sigh of relief for judges, suspects and their families, as well as genocide survivors," admits a human rights activist in the Rwandan capital Kigali. "It's time to move on and focus on development. Though the Gacacas helped convict those responsible for the genocide, they also held back the work of the civil society."

The trials also maintained an atmosphere of fear among the population. "Fear of being wrongfully accused or having to testify held back the socio-economic development of the country," says a political analyst. The 12,000 courts across the country held trials at least one day a week. It was compulsory for people to testify and when verdicts came back on a weekday, offices, stores and markets had to close for people to attend sentencing.

About 65% of the accused, mostly those whose crimes were widely known and those who had been most violent, were given sentences ranging from a year to life in prison. Those who confessed their crimes were given reduced sentences. But trials weren't always fair, and judges were untrained civilians with no legal experience, mostly elders from the community. Several human rights groups like Lawyers Without Borders and the Danish Center for Human Rights deplored the fact that justice was handed down by popular courts. For them, people who face major sentences like life in prison should be guaranteed a fair trial.

"Made in Rwanda" justice

Thanks to the tribunals, survivors were able to find out what happened to their loved ones. But many of them, as well as prisoners' families "regret that trials favored those who confessed their role in the genocide, while innocents were unfairly and harshly sentenced," says a villager in eastern Rwanda. According to Human Rights Watch, there was no due process. Survivors were also often disappointed to see that sentences had been reduced or turned into community service.

The trials were marred by the fact that witnesses and judges were murdered, many Rwandans fled abroad, there were fights between survivors and the families of the accused.

Despite these failings, the government is proud of the Gacacas system. "It's a Rwandan solution to the very difficult Rwandan conflict that was the genocide," said President Paul Kagame.

Though the special courts are closing, the hunt for suspects continues. About 75,000 people who were convicted haven't served their sentence because they were tried in absentia or have since fled the country.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Elsa Finocchiaro

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